Planning for Inclement Weather Events
By Dave Ramont
This past August, during a PGA Tour Championship event in Atlanta, lightning struck the golf course twice near the 16th tee as fans and golfers were waiting for bad weather to pass. Six people were injured, though none of the injuries were life threatening.
This incident highlights how quickly weather can turn dangerous. It also underscores how critical—and challenging—it is for venue operators, festival organizers, parks and municipalities to have weather action plans in place. From small art fairs or little league games to large concerts and sporting events, those in charge need to strategize well in advance to be prepared for any weather threats.
Each year, hazardous weather injures or kills attendees at entertainment venues. And, according to information provided by the American Meteorological Society (AMS), this is often because a weather plan didn't exist or it was simply inadequate. These plans should be generated well in advance of the event, with "an actionable set of decision triggers against a portfolio of weather risk, with a process to routinely evaluate and update the plan."
Determining how to handle evacuations is crucial, designating the nearest safe structures and knowing how long it takes to get people there when high-impact weather threatens. A secondary consideration is how to protect equipment. Other things to consider in a weather plan include making sure staff are aware of their responsibilities, and designating a trained individual to maintain situational awareness and make weather-related decisions before, during and after the event. There should be clear mechanisms for communicating weather risk among event organizers, participants and local emergency management, as well as a mass communication plan to alert attendees of any risks. This could include audio, visual and digital warnings. To support the weather plan, a professional meteorologist should forecast and monitor the weather specifically for the venue.
Kevin Kloesel is director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, as well as the university meteorologist for the Oklahoma University (OU) Office of Emergency Preparedness. In addition to developing and leading weather safety training on campus, he's provided weather preparedness training to the NFL, NCAA, NASCAR and numerous sports venues, concert halls and amusement parks. Kloesel advises to never take someone else's weather plan and copy it, since each venue is different. "Each one should take the time to go through the planning process and identify the unique needs that each venue has. In addition, each venue should have a different plan for each type of event." For instance, a football game and a concert will place different demands on staff, require different evacuation times, etc. "All of these factors need to be taken into consideration so that you know the right time to enact the weather plan."
At OU, every outdoor campus event has an emergency response plan, which includes a weather component that ensures for real-time weather monitoring and sets predetermined actions for various weather hazards. There are contingencies for lightning, wind, hail, extreme hot or cold temperatures, precipitation and tornadoes. A safety coordinator is on site for each event, and if hazardous weather threatens, they're in contact with the university meteorologist, who is also on site if the weather risk is high. All weather plans and potential weather decisions and actions are discussed ahead of time so that event organizers know what to do if severe weather occurs.
"I support over 300 events on our campus each year," said Kloesel, "whether it's 90,000 spectators at a football game or 100 at an outdoor courtyard dedication ceremony. I'm always on the speaker circuit attempting to show our peer universities the utility of implementing our duty of care in this way. Several universities are now using our model."
For parks and rec systems, Kloesel advises creating plans in advance and publishing them to all patrons. "If someone is booking an area in a park, picnic pavilion, athletic field, etc., share the plan with them. Have them sign off on the plan. So many times, people act under the stress of the event, and everyone winds up angry, or worse. Develop the plan, share the plan. Be proactive."
Many resources are available for those looking to create a weather plan. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Weather Service (NWS) have prioritized impact-based decision support services as part of their Weather-Ready Nation (WRN) strategic plan. Entertainment and sports venues can access NWS materials such as the Lightning Safety Toolkit, or apply for their StormReady and TsunamiReady Ambassador Programs, which stress the importance of public readiness and utilizing integrated warning teams. They also offer guidance on preparedness and weather monitoring, and conduct training and weather drills and exercises.
The event safety specialists at AMS have also forged partnerships that have provided guides and resources for weather professionals and venue operators. These include the Event Safety Guide authored by the Event Safety Alliance and the Best Practices Guides provided by the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. And event weather safety classes are offered by the Event Safety Alliance, the International Association of Fairs and Expositions and the International Association of Venue Managers.
The NWS uses 122 local weather forecast offices to serve the United States, with each office responsible for gathering weather observations and climate data, issuing severe weather warnings and issuing local marine, aviation, fire and public weather forecasts. Each office is staffed with a Warning Coordination Meteorologist (WCM) who is responsible for planning and coordinating public awareness programs. Contacting the local WCM can benefit those looking to create a weather action plan.
Tanja Fransen is a meteorologist with NOAA/NWS, stationed in Glasgow, Montana. Her office offers an Event Planning and Hazardous Weather guide for the Glasgow community, with lots of insightful suggestions broken down into these sections: Months before the event; One-two weeks prior to the event; Two-four days prior to the event; Day before event; Morning of event; During the event. "We in the Weather Service would much rather help you plan well ahead", said Fransen. "If you're planning an event, whether it's for profit or not, you really should plug in with your local Emergency Management services and let them be aware of it, let them know how many people you're anticipating. And you should have your severe weather plan, especially in suburban and rural areas."
One thing the guide stresses is designating a Weather Watcher for the event. This person remains aware of weather conditions and takes action when there's a developing weather emergency to move people to safety. They have authority to cancel events or change hours or dates. They should be the primary person coordinating with other event organizers and local emergency responders. They should have multiple ways of accessing weather information.
Fransen said that while they do work with law enforcement on smaller community events, when it comes to larger for-profit events like concerts and NASCAR races, the private sector tends to fill in these gaps. "The private sector really serves a good role because they're specifically looking at the event for that venue operator. A lot of the major concert groups have hired on private meteorologists. They're going to make enough money on their event to pay them to help write the plan and monitor the weather—not just the day of it, but the days leading up to it."
"The NWS can work with a local emergency manager, but not with the commercial venue staff," said Kloesel, citing a directive that prohibits NWS from assisting private venues. "Therefore, it's preferable for a venue to have their own professional meteorological expertise on hand."
One Minnesota-based firm provides weather solutions for sports and recreation events, as well as other industries. "We serve large clients such as major event and concert organizers, artist tours and venues as well as smaller clients who may be organizing a fair or festival for a few days to a week", said Brad Nelson, meteorologist and weather product manager with the company. He mentioned Notre Dame University as a client. "We provide weather insights, on-site meteorologists and actionable information for many of their large events, including the 2018 Garth Brooks concert, their home football games and their annual spring commencement ceremony."
According to Nelson, their meteorologists will assist a venue with any weather-related questions, including evacuation decisions. They'll help them build a weather action plan and assist with drills and practice sessions. "We've been involved in many inclement weather table-top exercises and development of protocols, helping our clients feel more prepared to address severe weather situations that could arise during their event."
Nelson explained that some customers plan events that last a few days, a week or two or more, and they may prefer to engage meteorologists and forecasts in the weeks leading up to their event. Some have meteorologists on site during the event advising about changing weather conditions and how they might impact their action plans. Others prefer a remote and dedicated meteorologist site monitoring and alerting package. "Yet other clients use our consulting forum to call our meteorologists who are focused on the event location. We tailor the services to our customer's budgets and needs."
The company also offers summaries and analysis after a weather event occurs, helping venues better understand if their safety plan was successful, according to Nelson. "They may also need to know if the weather event caused unseen damage, such as hail on a roof. Finally, they may need records of weather events and information for their insurance provider."
Fransen said that they like to reach across the aisle with the private sector, and Nelson agrees. "We consider the NWS, AMS and other government agencies as partners and will work in coordination for various projects and events. There's an abundance of data and knowledge sharing between government agencies and the private sector."
The AMS website highlights numerous success stories where proactive venue operators working closely with weather professionals have averted disaster when faced with life-threatening weather events. But they also share tragedies involving weather at venues to underscore potential dangers. One such event occurred in August 2011, at an outdoor concert by Sugarland at the Indiana State Fair. A wind gust from an approaching severe thunderstorm hit the stage's temporary roof structure, causing it to collapse, killing seven people and injuring 58 others. Several issues were found with the level of preparedness and the actions of State Fair officials and Sugarland representatives that contributed to the disaster.
"If you look at what happened at the Indiana State Fair, that was a big wakeup call. Hope is not a plan," said Fransen, referring to an announcement made shortly before the stage collapse, which said they were aware that weather was coming but "hope that it will miss us." Fransen mentioned seeing video from large events where someone may see lightning in the distance and say "I hope that doesn't hit us." "Well, that's not your plan," said Fransen. "There's lightning within a certain distance of your stadium, so you need to move people. Whether your stadium is built in such a way that you can move them away from where they're exposed or whether you have to send them all to their cars for a period—that's a safer option then having people sitting out."
Lightning is certainly a big risk, and detection technologies are always improving. Even phone apps have customizable lightning detection components. Both Fransen and Kloesel are fans of lightning detection networks that are maintained by the private sector. "These national networks in the hands of a professional meteorologist who can combine this data with dozens of other datasets can begin to precisely determine lightning risk," said Kloesel.
But both meteorologists also point out that different venues have different needs with regard to how far your lightning detection range should be. "Don't choose a lightning radius without careful thought," cautioned Kloesel. "Eight miles for a smaller venue will not work the same way as eight miles for NASCAR, as they might need extra time to get hundreds of thousands of spectators to safety."
Lately we're seeing more lightning detection devices being placed in parks and other public places. Rich Wills is a principal at a Wisconsin-based company offering products to the recreation industry, including lightning warning systems. "In areas that experience frequent thunderstorms, municipalities often place lightning warning systems at busy sports parks and aquatic facilities. Golf courses, airports, military installations and many commercial facilities have adopted an automated lightning warning system to protect patrons and staff."
Wills explained how automated lightning detection and warning systems issue an alarm when a local detector reports a lightning discharge within a certain distance to the area of concern, with five miles considered the minimum distance for warning. "Alerts to the public are issued via distinct audio and visual notifications. It's important to have all affected parties notified simultaneously to ensure that all persons seek shelter." After there is no lightning for a determined time, the system automatically sends an all-clear. Wills added that these systems can be customized to cover areas as small as a pool or as large as an entire county. "Each scenario presents different requirements to which the technology is adaptable."
If desired, systems can be programmed on a seven-day schedule, according to Wills, to meet a facility's hours of operation. "In addition to audible and visual notifications on site, alerting mission-critical staff who may be off site via text messaging and email is an important option for users to consider." Solar-powered systems are also available.
Sometimes issues with heat and humidity are overlooked, but on a worldwide basis, more people die from heat than any other weather. Fransen mentioned the most dramatic weather toll at an event in U.S. history, taking place in August of 1990 at a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul ll at Cherry Creek State Park in Colorado. Several deaths occurred and thousands more fell ill due to heat, lack of shade and dehydration. For this reason, Fransen stresses the importance of providing cooling stations and shade if heat is a factor.
Kloesel said that he's currently working with Drum Corps International on improving heat recognition in the marching arts, explaining that field turf can cause a playing or marching surface to be significantly hotter than the air temperature. "We've been able to reduce tornado fatalities, lightning fatalities, flood fatalities, etc. However, heat fatalities are still on the increase. Venues typically don't have cooling stations, but we do now at OU, both for the athletes and for spectators."
"We engage frequently during summer months with athletic departments on heat issues as they think about athlete safety, specializing in heat index and wet-bulb globe temperature forecasts and alerts," said Nelson. "Event organizers also turn to us for heat insights to ensure that they're working to keep spectators safe, including when to roll out cooling stations and budget for extra water."
Kloesel is encouraged that venues and organizations such as the NFL, PGA and NASCAR are recognizing that proactive weather plans are critical. "Many of the weather decision-makers in professional and college sports attend regular training sessions at places like the Event Safety Alliance and the National Center for Spectator Sports Safety and Security. I'm a subject-matter expert for both groups, and conduct annual training sessions all over the U.S. and Canada. Many professional sports and concert venues send new staff members to these workshops each year."
"The most successful event organizers are more adept to ride out inclement weather events when they have trained meteorologists providing guidance and professional weather monitoring services," noted Nelson. "Don't become the next bad weather headline!"
"Things are definitely better as far as the information age," said Fransen, citing the use of tornado warning alerts to peoples' cell phones, "but we're also in a disinformation age. Any kid with a Facebook account can put a weather forecast up, so you shouldn't trust those fly-by-night sites." She's also encouraged that the Weather Service, private sector and academic sector are working toward a common goal: "The goal is to build a weather-ready nation." RM
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